Will the FDA Ban Menthol Cigarettes?

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The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is due in the coming week to submit to the agency its final report on the health effects of menthol cigarettes. The FDA is considering a ban on the product.

Makers of menthol cigarettes — including Lorillard whose menthol brand, Newport, accounts for about 90% of the company’s sales — filed a lawsuit on Feb. 25 to block the FDA committee’s recommendations, arguing that its members have conflicts of interest and therefore cannot make an unbiased judgment on the matter. Although the FDA is not required to follow its advisory panels’ advice, it usually does.

(More on Time.com: A Study Asks, Could E-Cigarettes Really Help Smokers Quit?)

According to draft chapters of the committee’s report recently published online, the panel found “insufficient” evidence to suggest that menthol smokers are more likely to develop tobacco-related disease than smokers of unflavored cigarettes, but it did find data to suggest that menthol makes smoking more addictive.

Chapter 4 [PDF] of the draft report cites a recent Nicotine and Tobacco Research review of 10 previous smoking-cessation studies that found that younger smokers who use menthol cigarettes found it especially hard to quit.

Indeed the report finds that teenagers smoke menthol cigarettes at a higher rate than any other age group, according to data from three previous national surveys involving more than 160,000 respondents. Nearly half of adolescent smokers regularly used menthol cigarettes.

(More on Time.com: Smoking Cessation Linked to Happiness, Elevated Moods)

When considering the pattern of menthol smoking by ethnic group, the draft chapter finds also that:

The prevalence of menthol cigarette smoking is highest among African Americans across all sociodemographic and smoking-related categories, whether stratified by income, age, gender, marital status, region, education, age of initiation, and length of time smoking.

Now, as the FDA weighs a ban on menthols, it fuels the ongoing debate over how such action would impact the African American community. USA Today reports:

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Obama in June 2009, authorized the FDA to ban all cigarette flavors except minty menthol, whose brands represent more than a quarter of cigarettes sold in the USA.

In an open letter to Congress in 2008, seven former secretaries of Health and Human Services or Health, Education, and Welfare and a former surgeon general urged that the act ban menthol cigarettes as well.

“Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco — something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children — is a positive move,” they wrote. “But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans.”

As the latest chapter of the FDA committee’s draft report notes, however, menthol cigarettes are popular not only with black smokers, but with vulnerable younger smokers — black and white. “Use of menthol cigarettes is rising among adolescents, driven by a significant increase in the number of white youth ages 12–17 who are smoking menthol cigarettes,” the report states.